When I got on the phone with Tim Robbins, who was doing a day of interviews to publicize his new film, The Lucky Ones, he began with all the energy of a guy doing just another job, giving out answers that had the feeling of a familiar response practiced over numerous interviews. I have to take some of that blame myself â€“ you ask the same questions, you’ll get the same answers â€“ but it also felt like the outspoken Robbins was holding his own political view in check so as not to distract from the film, in which he plays an Iraq veteran trying to get home after his tour of duty and ending up on a road trip with a pair of younger soldiers on 30-day leave. I was supposed to get ten minutes and was hoping to get at least a couple of interesting comments from the Oscar-winning actor (for Mystic River) and Oscar-nominated director (for Dead Man Walking). And sure enough, once we got beyond The Lucky Ones and into other areas, such as his work in the theater, he seemed to come alive. Strangely enough, I never got around to talking about either Mystic River or Dead Man Walking, or his talent for playing closely-guarded characters, but we get started on Cradle Will Rock, his last film as a director, before he was called off for another interview. Some of the interview ended up in the short “A Moment With Tim Robbins” mini-feature for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The rest of it is here.
The character Colee, played by Rachel McAdams, calls your group “The Lucky Ones” because you survived battle. How lucky can they be if their definition of luck is simply survival?
I don’t know if that’s what the title means. It could be that they’ve found each other. One of the things that I responded to immediately with the script was that this story was very human feel to it and had compassion for the struggle and the challenge for returning home to the country after serving overseas. That’s a story that I think is important to tell, it’s a story that involves opening a door to something that not a lot of us have to think about. My main concern with it was, I wanted to make a film that veterans could see and appreciate.
What kind of research did you do for the role?
I’ve been talking to veterans and people in the armed services and family members of people in the armed services for a long time, since I did Top Gun, so I’ve come to know quite a few people in the military, everyone from gung-ho Republicans to people that were Republicans and are now against the war to Democrats to liberals to activists. There’s a wide spectrum of people in the military, they don’t all think the same way, and I have a deep respect who make that kind of sacrifice. I think it’s import that we understand that part of support for the troops is advocacy when they return, not only when also they’re there but when they return, and there’s an awful lot of challenges facing people coming home and this comes from my conversations with veterans and family members. I would hope the film perhaps makes people more sensitive to some of the needs of our veterans.
Tim Robbins is a very different person than Cheever, the character you play â€“ as all actors are different from their roles. You’re an outspoken activist and he’s not, he’s just a husband and a father and a working guy who wants to get back to his life. But in that sense, you do have a connection: you are a father and I assume that, like Cheever, you’d like to see that your children don’t have to go to Iraq.
Yes, but mine’s from a different perspective. His is from an informed perspective of someone who realizes what that has become versus what his hopes for his children are. My own perspective is different than, my own perspective has to do with many things that are not relevant to this movie but have relevance to my life.
Being a director yourself, how do you judge scripts that come your way as an actor?
I look for a script that is solid. I’m not interested in getting involved in something that needs to be rewritten. It’s a lot of work and not fun when you’re doing it on the set. So I look for a strong script, a strong director and a company that gets the movie and wants to make it properly.
After the success of Bull Durham and The Shawshank Redemption” you seem to have kept your career focused more on characters and challenging parts rather than play the movie star game. Were you being offered movie star roles and big budget studio projects at the time?
That was a choice, yes. I was offered many dolt-headed guys after Bull Durham, for lots of money, and didn’t find that to be something I wanted to do. I’m an actor so I want to play different kinds of roles. I’ve been very fortunate in that respect, to be able to do all kinds of different genres and movies, I’ve worked with some amazing directors that I’ve learned tremendous amounts from. I’m always looking for a challenge, I don’t want to do stuff I’ve already done. I understand that’s not the road to multi-million dollar contracts but I’m not complaining, I have a very nice life and I’m very fortunate to have the outlets that I have, not only in film but also in the theater. The Actors Gang is in its 27th year, we’re touring all over the place now, in 40 states, and had four productions on the road on four continents. So it’s an exciting road, it’s a road that is inevitably doing press for a movie that is up against it, regarding whether it’s going to get a wide audience. It’s always a challenge to break through the popcorn movies and get audiences for movies like The Lucky Ones. So it’s a very interesting life but at times you feel like you’re up against a much bigger challenge when you do things like that.
Isn’t that Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”?
Yeah, it is, it is. But I think I’m much happier living that kind of life than a life that’s predictable and so focused on product and marketability as opposed to quality that I hope will last for many years.
I hate to bring this up but I feel compelled to: Your career did survive the calamity of Howard the Duck.
Uhhhh, yeah, it did.
Would you attribute that to the strength of playing Nuke in Bull Durham, or the good fortune that, for all its notoriety, hardly anybody actually saw you in Howard the Duck?
I think it’s a combination of both. But you also have to understand that at the time I did that movie, I was essentially broke. So not only did I get paid my salary but I got paid double, because it took twice as long as it was supposed to take. So by the time I got off that movie, I was able to finance my theater for the next couple of years, which gave me the opportunity to do original works that I wrote or co-wrote and directed, which gave me great training in how to write and direct for film, because there is nothing more pressure-laden than trying to get a show up in four weeks. It starts with an idea and has to result in a script that is well rehearsed, so you find yourself rehearsing and then going home and writing until three or four in the morning and then coming back to rehearsal the next day, and that kind of training was absolutely key in being able to work on a movie set with the pressures that are inherent with that.
That’s a very John Cassavetes / Orson Welles approach to the relationship between art and commerce.
You know what? I saw very clearly in front of me that there are a couple of paths you can take in Hollywood. One is to start playing the town and being with the people who are supposedly going to be good for your career, and then there’s renting a loft in downtown Los Angeles and figuring out ways to do plays about things that are relevant to what you and your actors want to talk about, and for me that was such a joy, it became a no-brainer for me. Because ultimately the other way was kind of self-indulgent and self-congratulatory. I’ve been able to avoid that and still, when I go to Los Angeles, I kind of go from LAX to my theater and have a wonderful opportunity to be able to work with not only my friends for 27 years but also new actors and actresses who are just coming in, be able to train them in workshops and keep experimenting, keep growing as a writer and a director. It’s been a great benefit for me.
You haven’t directed a feature film since Cradle Will Rock. Do you have a dream project that you would like to see made?
I kind of took a hiatus from directing. My son was seven at the time that movie came out and he said to me, “Dad, I really like it better when you act.” What he meant was that I was there more when I acted, I could come home after acting in a movie and be there. As a director, you’re there 14-16 hours, going to dailies, and in the editing process you’re still there and I become obsessed and would found myself getting home at midnight even though I didn’t have a deadline, so I understood what he said and I still wanted to direct, but I didn’t have that hunger to keep going in film and I did have a hunger to get to know who he was and be there for his childhood. But I did still direct for the theater and got re-involved with my theater company, became the artistic director again, and directed four plays since then and wrote a couple. So I’ve been growing as a director in a way that I know is not the typical career path but something that’s been very good for me, and like I mentioned earlier, we’ve been all over the place now, we’ve toured all over the world, so I feel like that was a really great stopgap for me. Now I want to get back into it, he’s 16 now, I think he can’t wait until I leave (laughs), so I’m looking to direct something. It’s a different environment than it was the last time I directed. I did film a play I wrote, it’s not really a “film” film, itâ€™s a filmed version of a play.
That would be Embedded?
Yes, “Embedded.” But I’ve now written and I’m going to direct a pilot for Showtime on the pharmaceutical industry. I’m doing that in December, whether that goes to series or not I don’t know, it’s up to them. I also have a film I’ve been trying to find the financing for and hopefully that will happen. It’s a difficult time, not only a difficult economy but also a difficult time for small films. I’m hoping to get that done.
Thank you. I believe I’ve exceeded the ten minutes I was promised with you.
I think you have, but that’s cool. As long as they’re not grabbing the phone out of my hand I’m happy to talk.
If that’s the case, I’d love to talk about Cradle Will Rock” I’m fascinated with that film.
Cool. So am I.
I’m a huge Orson Welles fan and I know that at one point he was developing a film version of his own of the event. Your approach was very different than his. Did you read his script or did you start from scratch with your own research?
Someone asked me if I wanted to read it and I said, ‘Absolutely not, I can’t because I don’t want to be influenced by it.’ I was just told the story of that evening, of what happened in the theater, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s an amazing ending of a film. So how do we get there?’ So that was my job, to retrace the steps of that process that Orson Welles’ theater company arrived at. And also, what were the other stories that were happening around that same time and how do I weave in a tapestry of stories that tell what it was like to be alive at that time, the challenges that everyone was facing. But also, how do each one of these stories talk about art and theater and creativity and what does it take to express oneself. And for me, the moment was her standing up in the theater, that for me is what the whole movie was leading towards. For me, that’s really a story of the courage of an individual and how that can effect history, how that one moment became legendary. And what I found really curious was that in different accounts I was reading the history of it, different people took credit for that moment. John Houseman did, Welles did, a couple of other people did. I ran into a guy who was there, I think he was a stage manager, and I asked him about it. He said to me, ‘Listen, any one of those speeches could have happened, but I gotta tell ya, there was no point where we were all together, it was so chaotic that day that there was never a meeting. It was never about any kind of inspirational speech.’ And then he said something to me that really affected me. He said, ‘I’ve always felt that anyone taking credit for it took credit away from that girl, Olive Stanton, because she did the really courageous thing. You can make all the speeches you want about standing up and having your voice be heard, but the fact is the first person to stand up was risking everything. Was risking her job, her future, even her physical safety, because there were cops with batons in the theater. And the terror of the times, the steel strikes and the violence and the striker who had just been killed in the mid-west, and so there was all this tension.’ And he said, ‘That woman had so much courage to do that,’ and that’s how I understood how to put the film together, that conversation with the guy who was actually there that night.
I’ve always come at this piece of history from the perspective of it being an Orson Welles production. You really present it as a communal event. And truly, it was no longer under the guidance of one man once they made that march to the other theater. One of the most satisfying moments for me is when Orson Welles, who is played by Angus Macfayden, once it takes on a life of its own, he just steps in as another member of the group and becomes a part of it. He comes in as the policeman because that actor hasn’t appeared, so he fills in this small role. It’s such a nice reminder that he also was a man of the theater.
If there is a heaven, whenever I get there, I want to share this film with Orson Welles. I caught some heat from some people who venerated him and I think it was kind of unfair. For me, the challenge was, Who was this guy that was so brilliant and also, according to every account I’ve read, burning the candle at both ends. He was a rock star, he’d go from his radio show, take an ambulance across town to get to the show on time. After the show, he’d go up to Harlem and party until all hours of the morning. No one knew when he slept. And so for me, it was like, that’s what we’ve got to find, this young punk rocker, this guy who isn’t afraid to be courageous with his creative work but also isn’t afraid to have a good time. And I think some people had a problem with that because I showed him, at point, drunk and having a blast at the 21 club. But everyone has their own vision and their own opinion and I appreciate hearing that.